Montgomery workers lose wages as they wait for power to return

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010; B01

On Day Five of a power outage that put much of Montgomery County in the dark, the parking lot of an Aspen Hill shopping center remains mostly empty. A few employees have arrived -- at restaurants, grocery stores and the beauty parlor -- only to find more of the same: no electricity, no customers, no work.

"I've already lost three days of wages," Casto Comacho, a Pizza Hut delivery man, said Thursday. "What about my rent? What about buying food for my family? I can't do it without working normal hours."

Comacho spent the day sitting on the curb, hoping the electricity would return to Pizza Hut. He's one of many hourly employees in the area whose sole source of income dried up when the juice stopped flowing.

Marianne Wysong, a waitress at Outback Steakhouse on Georgia Avenue, has called her boss at least once a day to check on the restaurant's electricity.

Since Sunday, the answer has been, "Sorry, still no power."

For some, missing three days of work might be a minor inconvenience. For Wysong, it presents a serious problem. "The fact is, I can't afford to miss more than a day," she said. "With things the way they are, there's basically no way I can make my car payment. I'll be feeling the ripple effects for weeks."

During last winter's record snowstorms, Wysong hiked through the snow to get to work. When her manager decided to close the restaurant for a day, she could only sigh.

"I can't remember the last time I missed a day without being forced to," she said.

This week, Wysong has been staying home with her two children, "trying our best not to spend any money."

She's in good company. More than 100 employees of Outback alone have been without work since Sunday. They've been commiserating on Facebook, sharing their frustration.

At the shopping center, utility workers tried to get the businesses back online, sending periodic surges of power to them. For a few minutes, and once for more than an hour, light and power were restored. People ran back to their workplaces, ready to resume business as usual.

Then the lights flickered, and the power was gone again. Workers let out a collective groan and wandered back outside to vent.

"This is getting really frustrating," said Carla Hernandez, a medical assistant at the Xpress MedCare walk-in clinic. "Looks like it's another few days of rice and beans."

For businesses without power, there's a cruel arbitrariness to the outages.

"Why does that shopping center have electricity but not ours?" Comacho asked, pointing across the street to another retail strip, nearly identical but with lights glowing. "Seems unfair, doesn't it?"

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